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Feds could penalize CN for underreported crossing blockages
By Marni Pyke | Daily Herald Staff

A northbound Canadian National Railway freight train heads through the west side of Bartlett on EJ&E tracks.


Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

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Published: 4/28/2010 9:11 PM

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Federal regulators aren't happy with CN's failure to report most of the railroad crossing blockages along the EJ&E Railway, and consequences could follow.

"Today's hearing revealed a very troublesome failure with CN's being entirely forthcoming," U.S. Surface Transportation Board Chairman Daniel Elliott said at a Wednesday hearing.

The agency called the Canadian National Railway on the carpet after an independent audit showed it underreported crossing delays by about 1,400 incidents in November and December. CN also handed over new records that showed significant crossing blockages by freight trains compared to its original figures since February 2009.

The railway is under STB scrutiny after the board approved CN's purchase of the smaller EJ&E in late 2008. Because of the intense opposition to the merger by towns along the "J," the STB imposed numerous conditions, including a requirement CN provide monthly reports about operating conditions such as crossing blockages of 10 minutes or more.

CN reported 14 cases in November and December but the auditors found 1,457. Railroad executives apologized and explained they thought the board wanted only crossing delays caused by stopped trains not slow trains.

"We were not looking to hide information," said Gordon Trafton, CN special adviser and a former senior vice president.

But board members were skeptical.

"In some ways, your testimony seems a little disingenuous," board Vice Chairman Francis Mulvey said. "The clear concern the board had was on the impact of the merger on the communities. Communities don't care if the train was stopped or was slow-moving."

Board member Chip Nottingham added, "it's not clear if we would ever have gotten this information if we had not been diligent."

The STB took no action Wednesday but Nottingham suggested that since a year's worth of data was incorrect, the board should consider extending its oversight of the CN/EJ&E purchase from five years to six years.

Elliott noted that the board's intent wasn't to revisit approval of the merger but he advised CN not to destroy any of its records, hinting at possible further investigation. Options include fines, imposing additional conditions or extending oversight.

CN also provided revamped data on crossing blockages of 10 minutes or more along the EJ&E. The new figures show an huge jump between the original numbers of delays caused by stopped trains compared to revised data with stopped and slow-moving freights. The following are some examples.

• April 2009: Original - 14; Revised - 886

• May 2009: Original - 11; Revised - 726

• June 2009: Original - 10; Revised - 850

• July 2009: Original - 9; Revised - 1,002

• August 2009: Original - 4; Revised - 980

• September 2009: Original - 8; Revised 1,038

• October 2009: Original - 9; Revised 1,000

• January 2010: Original - 5; Revised 1,156

• February 2010: Original - 5; Revised 1,239

• March 2010: Original - 10; Revised 1,804

But average monthly blockages on the EJ&E before the merger were 1,724 and after CN's takeover are 1,047.

"We regret ... we did not provide the board all of the information it believes it requires," Trafton said.

Slow-moving trains are a fact of life for all railroads and CN is addressing this with improvements such as new switches and upgraded connections, he said.

U.S. Rep. Melissa Bean, a Barrington Democrat, testified at the hearing. She echoed the concerns of towns from Aurora to Barrington that fought the merger citing fears of traffic gridlock, noise and safety.

"It's difficult for communities to trust their promises," Bean said, adding CN showed a pattern of "disregard for laws and indifference to communities.